Chickenpox is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Both adults and children can get the infection. Characterized by itchy blisters and rashes, chickenpox is highly contagious. A vaccine is available for most children and adults, which can help prevent chickenpox infection. Other ways to limit exposure to chickenpox include avoiding infected persons and disinfecting items that have come in contact with infected persons.
In the past, chickenpox was not preventable and was almost considered to be an expected event during a child's life. Today, there is a vaccine available to prevent chickenpox. About 90 percent of vaccinated children will be protected from chickenpox and the remaining 10 percent will have less severe infections. This vaccine can be used to help prevent chicken pox in children and adults who have never had the infection. Unfortunately, pregnant women should not be given the vaccine.
Chickenpox can be extremely dangerous for pregnant women because it can cause birth defects in unborn children. If someone in a pregnant woman's home has chickenpox, there is about a 90 percent chance that the woman will contract the illness. In order to minimize the risk, the woman should wash her hands thoroughly after touching the infected person. She should avoid touching her nose, mouth, or eyes with her hands unless her hands are clean.
In addition, anything that the infected person touches should be disinfected to minimize exposure to chickenpox. This includes toys, dishes, telephones, and eating utensils. Food should also not be shared.
According to the March of Dimes, less than 10 percent of women who are pregnant need to be concerned about getting chickenpox while pregnant. This is because most women either have had the illness or have been vaccinated for chickenpox. In the United States, the rate for contracting chickenpox while pregnant is about one in every 2,000 pregnancies. A women who knows that she never had chickenpox or suspects that she never had chickenpox should discuss the situation with her physician.
A woman who is unable to avoid exposure to chickenpox and develops the illness during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy may give birth to a baby that has congenital varicella syndrome. Among the defects that the infant may have are low birth weight, blindness, and mental retardation. In addition, the baby may have paralyzed limbs, a smaller-than-normal head, and seizures. Congenital varicella syndrome develops in one to two percent of babies whose mothers have chickenpox during pregnancy.
Women who develop chickenpox later in their pregnancies are less likely to have babies with birth defects. This is because during this time period, the mother's body will be producing antibodies that will also protect the baby. When pregnant women are unable to avoid exposure to chickenpox and develop the illness with five days of giving birth to two days after giving birth, the infant may develop neonatal varicella, which can be potentially life threatening.